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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Research and Development
National Center for Environmental Research
Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program


Development of National Aquatic Ecosystem Classifications and Reference Conditions

Opening Date: January 7, 2000
Closing Date: April 17, 2000

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The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development solicits grant applications for establishing ecological classification schemes and reference conditions to support development of biological criteria for aquatic ecosystem health in one or more of the following resources: wetlands, large rivers, ephemeral systems, reservoirs, lakes, streams, estuaries, near-shore coastal environments, and coral reef communities. Development of biocriteria for evaluating the condition of aquatic resources within the United States is central to implementing the Clean Water Act's (as amended 1987) objective to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters."

Establishing biological criteria for assessing aquatic ecosystem health requires three key elements:

(1) selection of indicators of biological condition;

(2) creation of a classification framework to allow stratification within water body types; and

(3) specification of reference conditions at the appropriate strata.

Most research efforts have been directed toward developing biological indicators, but there has been some notable work by States and others on developing classification schemes and reference conditions in support of biocriteria for streams and small rivers (e.g., see Ohio, Maine). However, in order to aggregate all our various aquatic resources into nationally consistent frameworks and to achieve economies of scale for establishing reference conditions and sampling aquatic systems crossing state boundaries, an improved scientific basis for classifications and reference conditions needs to be developed. Therefore, grants funded under this solicitation will improve the scientific basis for classification of various water bodies and provide guidance for deriving biological reference conditions for these classes, leading to more rigorous and defensible biocriteria. These research efforts are intended to complement the monitoring and assessment research on aquatic ecosystems conducted by EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) and to assist the States in implementing EPA's Office of Water's Biocriteria Program. For additional information on ecoregions and biocriteria see http://www.epa.gov/ceisweb1/ceishome/atlas/bioindicators/.

Biological assessments are being used by a number of States to directly evaluate the condition of resident biota in a water body. Typically, such assessments are based on the composition, diversity, and functional organization of the resident community of aquatic organisms in the system (e.g., macroinvertebrates, plants, and/or fish). These biological assessments can be compared to numeric values or narrative descriptions for reference biological conditions for the appropriately classified water body (biocriteria) to determine if the waters are subject to chemical pollution, habitat degradation, or other adverse factors. However, defensible biocriteria are critical to assessing the condition of the States' aquatic resources (305(b) reports), to listing impaired waters that may require total maximum daily load (TMDL) allocations (303(d) listing), and to evaluating the effectiveness of management actions to control point source and nonpoint source problems. Also, successful classification frameworks may reduce monitoring costs to States by allowing aggregation of sampling efforts for an aquatic resource type and sharing of reference conditions.

The goal of ecological classification for an aquatic system (e.g., wetlands, large rivers, ephemeral systems, reservoirs, lakes, streams, estuaries, near-shore coastal environments, and coral reef communities) is to stratify the particular system such that members within a stratum act similarly (e.g., similar reference conditions would apply). For a classification scheme to be useful in the development of biocriteria it should not be so coarse that it cannot provide useful distinctions, nor should it be so fine that each unit is unique and must be censused.

This solicitation seeks to determine the appropriate level of stratification within a class that will allow uniform biocriteria to be developed and applied. Classifications of aquatic resources may be a priori hierarchical. For example, a potential stratification within a system might be based on geographically distinct areas of the country (e.g., ecoregions [Omernik, J.M. 1987. Ecoregions of the conterminous United States (map supplement): Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77(1):118-125; Omernik, J.M., and G.E. Griffith. 1991. Ecological regions versus hydrologic units: Frameworks for Managing Water Quality. J. Soil and Water Conservation. 46: 334-340; Omernik, J.M. 1995. Ecoregions - a framework for environmental management, p. 49-62 in Davis, W.S. and Simon, T.P., eds., Biological assessment and criteria - tools for water resource planning and decision making, Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, Florida]) that are inhabited by different biological communities. A further level of stratification might be necessary to distinguish among different habitat types within a water body in a specific geographic region (e.g., different major substrate types within a large estuary or differences between 1st and 5th order streams). However, a different approach might employ multi-variate analyses of biological survey data to find significant differences in the biological communities, and a posteriori, group these differences into a distinct classification scheme.

At the appropriate level of stratification for an aquatic resource, there must also be a systematic mechanism for establishing reference conditions, against which all other members of the strata are to be judged. Reference conditions should describe the characteristics of waters that are within the same biogeographic or ecological region and represent conditions that are minimally impacted by human activities (e.g., regional reference conditions). Reference conditions are a critical dimension for developing biocriteria; because reference conditions are typically established within a classification framework, the development of a classification system and reference conditions may be an iterative process.


This solicitation seeks the development of functional, defensible classification schemes and associated reference conditions for use in the application of biocriteria to one or more of the following aquatic resources: wetlands, large rivers, ephemeral systems, reservoirs, lakes, streams, estuaries, near-shore coastal environments, and coral reef communities.

Classification schemes with reference conditions are sought that can systematically accommodate differences in the functional, spatial, and temporal variations of water bodies. The intent is to develop classification methods and reference conditions that can be applied in a nationally consistent framework. However, proposals of more limited scope may be acceptable if they demonstrate "proof of concept" at subregional (e.g., large watershed) scales in disparate ecological areas. While the minimum test for successful proposals is scientific excellence, the ease of application and use of classification and reference conditions by state and federal resource agencies should also be addressed.

To establish ecological classification and reference conditions for aquatic ecosystems, two primary research objectives have been identified. These objectives relate to identifying the sources and strengths of the variability associated with different aquatic systems and development of scientifically defensible reference conditions. These objectives with a range of potential research questions are listed below. Proposers should describe their rationale for the research approach taken.

Successful applications will address the following statements:

I. There is an appropriate sub-classification for each aquatic resource that accounts for spatial, temporal, and functional differences; these sub-classes can be distinguished from each other, but can be aggregated into a national framework.

Aquatic systems vary in their internal heterogeneity and the degree to which they are biologically and hydrologically "open" to adjacent terrestrial or aquatic systems. How do these factors affect the degree to which conditions in the surrounding landscape affect the biological condition of water bodies? Can similarities or variations in functional characteristics be effectively reflected in classification strategies? Are functional characteristics a strong determinant of biological condition?

The biological conditions in these systems also vary in time and space. Does the spatial or temporal variability in biological condition overshadow the functional variability within a system? Is it possible to develop a classification method that permits a user to move between spatial, temporal, and/or functional scales of analysis? Can variation in biological conditions be linked to the landscape position of the water body (e.g., the hydrologic position of wetlands within a landscape, or the land cover surrounding lakes or estuaries)?

II. Scientifically defensible reference conditions can be established at the appropriate levels of classification.

Biological conditions are often estimated from field data collected from implicitly or explicitly defined classes of impairment (e.g., minimally disturbed or highly disturbed water bodies). Can existing data be used to establish reference conditions within the classification scheme? If not, can insights obtained through process models be used to help define reference conditions? Do temporal and spatial variability have a substantial effect on reference conditions? Is it necessary to have different reference conditions for specific spatial or temporal scales? How can anthropogenic effects on biological condition be distinguished from natural variability? Can available techniques (e.g., multi-variate clustering methods, gradient analyses, empirical models) establish quantitative relationships among watershed- and landscape-level disturbances and the biological condition of water bodies? If so, how might such techniques be used to complement data obtained from site-specific or probabilistic monitoring surveys for developing reference conditions? What methods are available or could be developed to establish "historic" reference conditions, if they do not currently exist?


This solicitation seeks a national perspective for aquatic system classification and associated reference conditions. Proposers should provide a description of the approach to be used and a rationale for the aquatic resources and scales being investigated. A project need not develop new methods if existing approaches can be shown to be appropriate. However, if a new system is proposed, the use of extant large-scale data sets to statistically compare a "new" system with existing systems is encouraged. Projects to "validate" a specific classification technique in a limited area are not the purpose of this solicitation, but may be acceptable if they can be shown to substantially assist in conceptual development of classification methods. Projects may include any appropriate blend of theory, synthesis, experimental, and/or field studies to address questions of classification schemes and reference conditions relating to any type of aquatic resource. Research proposals using western ecosystems as one of their proposed study areas will be considered favorably, as this is a current EMAP focus area.

Additional information on EMAP, as well as their data sets, can be found on http://www.epa.gov/emap/


Subject to the availability of funds, approximately $6 million is expected to be awarded in FY2000 in this program. It is anticipated that two types of proposals will be submitted with different funding requirements. The annual funding levels (for up to three years) will be up to $500,000/year, if primary data collection is required, or $250,000/year, if existing databases are utilized. Do not exceed these guidelines.


Academic and not-for-profit institutions located in the U.S., and state or local governments, are eligible under all existing authorizations. Profit-making firms are not eligible to receive grants from EPA under this program. Federal agencies and national laboratories funded by federal agencies (Federally-funded Research and Development Centers, FFRDCs) may not apply.

Federal employees are not eligible to serve in a principal leadership role on a grant. FFRDC employees may cooperate or collaborate with eligible applicants within the limits imposed by applicable legislation and regulations. They may participate in planning, conducting, and analyzing the research directed by the principal investigator, but may not direct projects on behalf of the applicant organization or principal investigator. The principal investigator's institution may provide funds through its grant from EPA to a FFRDC for research personnel, supplies, equipment, and other expenses directly related to the research. However, salaries for permanent FFRDC employees may not be provided through this mechanism.

Federal employees may not receive salaries or in other ways augment their agency's appropriations through grants made by this program. However, federal employees may interact with grantees so long as their involvement is not essential to achieving the basic goals of the grant.1 The principal investigator's institution may also enter into an agreement with a federal agency to purchase or utilize unique supplies or services unavailable in the private sector. Examples are purchase of satellite data, census data tapes, chemical reference standards, analyses, or use of instrumentation or other facilities not available elsewhere, etc. A written justification for federal involvement must be included in the application, along with an assurance from the federal agency involved which commits it to supply the specified service.

1EPA encourages interaction between its own laboratory scientists and grant principal investigators for the sole purpose of exchanging information in research areas of common interest that may add value to their respective research activities. However, this interaction must be incidental to achieving the goals of the research under a grant. Interaction that is "incidental" is not reflected in a research proposal and involves no resource commitments.
Potential applicants who are uncertain of their eligibility should contact Dr. Robert E. Menzer in NCER, phone (202) 564-6849, email: menzer.robert@epa.gov.


A set of special instructions on how applicants should apply for a NCER grant is found on the NCER Web site, http://www.epa.gov/ncer/rfa/forms/, Standard Instructions for Submitting a STAR Application. The necessary forms for submitting an application are also found on this Web site.


The need for a sorting code to be used in the application and for mailing is described in the Standard Instructions for Submitting a STAR Application. The sorting code for applications submitted in response to this solicitation is 2000-STAR-G1. The deadline for receipt of the application by NCER is April 17, 2000.


The following contact person will respond to inquiries regarding this solicitation and can respond to any technical questions related to your application.

Barbara Levinson 202-564-6911

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